Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Circus of Karaokeness

I wasn't going to do a blog about this Karaoke Circus because I genuinely do worry that you're all sick of reading about its mind-blowing brilliance. But, Mum has asked for one (and who can turn down a mum) and this one *was* particularly notable for several reasons. For brevity, I shall bullet point them...

- The Venue: KC's nomadic nature meant we regulars headed West to Ginglik, an underground bar on Shepherd's Bush Green (literally in the middle of it) converted from the gents public toilets. Surprisingly sanitary despite this.

- Dan Maier Sings: "Fresh" from an umpteen-hour flight from Australia which was delayed by that blasted volcano, Dan didn't feel up to judging - but took to the stage and sang 'It's The End Of The World As We Know It' with Robin Ince instead. Brilliant!

- Singing In French: In what was probably my favourite performance of the night, Radio 4 regulars Laurence & Gus's did a stunning rendition of 7 Seconds; yes, complete with the French verses, in full, learned word for word.

- Surprise Tim Minchin: It's always a delight to see our Aussie maestro, even more so when it's a bonus. Last night he bounced his way through the Wannadies' The You And Me Song.

Highlights in visual form (thanks to Mr Paul Bailey):

Dan Maier and Robin Ince

Laurence and Gus

Tim Minchin

And lest we forget those brave, hardy audience members who stick their name on the list to sing (thanks to Mr Rob Sedgebeer):

Seb Patrick performs National Express

Karaoke winners Victoria and Andy perform Stan

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Wainwright Week - Prima Donna and All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu

I've had the chance to indulge my love of all things Rufus Wainwright this week, thanks to a the triple-whammy of the new production of his opera Prima Donna at Sadler's Wells, the new album All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, and finally his latest live show.

Let's start with that opera. The first thing to make clear is that it's my first, and I can't claim to know anything about the artform - as such, I'm simply having to analyse it like I would a musical, which would probably send a shiver down the spine of any purist. But on the basis of the elements on which I can offer an opinion - story, character, lyrics - I can tentatively come to the conclusion that this is far from a 'great' opera. The story follows a day in the life of a once-celebrated opera singer on the eve of her come-back performance, all of the anxiety and memory that that evokes, and how she is pushed, pulled and advised by an ambitious butler, fawning journalist and empathetic maid.

The beautiful music portrays all of this angst, but what is disappointing - especially for a Rufus Wainwright fan who has long been in awe of his imagery and complexity of language - is the lack of invention in the lyrics. I was prepared for the "would you like a cup of coffee" type lines that often get a bashing from opera-haters, but there was such scope for the emotion and clever imagery that make Wainwright such a brilliant songwriter. These lyrics though were, it pains me to say, often on the prosaic side, and that meant that it was hard to get swept away with the story. The stunning soprano who plays the maid - Rebecca Botton - positively outshines her leading lady, and is well-served by a beautiful, witty solo which reminds you of the genius behind this opera, but overall I felt that the production was a little 'under-cooked'. And believe me, that is not something I thought I would ever say about a piece that has emerged from Rufus's mind.

Of course, if it's angst you want then you really need look no further than his latest LP - All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu. Written during his late (great) mother Kate McGarrigle's illness, this piano-and-voice album is thoughtful, sombre and elegaic. Not all of the songs are as openly about Rufus's fear and grief as Martha, in which he asks his sister whether she has been to see Kate or their father, or Zebulon where he literally talks about his mother being in hospital, but sadness pervades the album completely. It's a very different beast to his earlier works then, and not immediately accessible - but the musicianship, especially on the majestic The Dream is sublime and you get the feeling that its beauty will be revealed through repeated listens.

Rufus performs the album in full as the first half of his new live show, following an announcement that he would like the audience to refrain from applause until he has left the stage. The idea, he tells us in the second half, is to give a pop audience the chance to experience the atmosphere of a classical concert, but combined with his funereal black lace-and-feathers outfit, it's clear that it is also meant to be respectful tribute to Kate. Just as she is ever-present in the album, the second half - still just him and the grand piano - starts with Beauty Mark, and ends with Kate's own The Walking Song.

In between there is a little more levity - though the lack of a band means that the bombast of I Don't Know What It Is and 14th Street are missing - and Rufus's usual cheekiness comes out as he celebrates the plethora of "pretty boys" Sheffield has to offer. This style of show means that some of Rufus's most beautiful piano-led songs - Poses, The Art Teacher, Going To A Town and the heartbreaking Dinner At Eight - get a live airing, while this version of Grey Gardens, normally laden with vocals and orchestration, only serves to further highlight its brilliance.

Of course, Rufus's over the top campery is part of what makes him so wonderful, and so you might think that this show would be lacking in some way. But 50 minutes of applause-less music is actually pure theatre and the songs in the second half - their craft laid bare - shine brighter than ever.

Monday, April 05, 2010

An Event Of Some Kind's Birthday Bash

Poet, front-man and Tweeter-extraordinaire, H Anthony (AKA Junior Ministers) has been hosting An Event Of Some Kind for a year now - a wonderful, heart-warming South London night of music and funniness, often combined. So, last Friday it was time to get back some of the top acts and bring in a couple of talented first-timers.

The back room of a pretty standard pub in a residential area may not sound like the most exciting venue, but spaces are very often transformed into something more beautiful by what happens within them, and that's certainly the case at The Cavendish Arms in Stockwell every time An Event Of Sometime occurs.

At this birthday party, the night got off to an encouragingly great start with Pippa Evans, whose drunk, messed-up singer-songwriter character Loretta Maine just goes from strength to strength. There was more straight stand-up in this set than I've seen from her before, and, combined with the fabulous songs, it's clear that Loretta could easily carry a great hour-long show on her own - I hope that's the case come Edinburgh.

Aussie songstress Emi Green came next - a Sheila Nicholls-y songwriter who has a lovely voice and a real talent for storytelling lyrics - and closing both halves of the night were the utterly fabulous 6 Day Riot. A fun, folky five-piece complete with double bass, violin and two types of ukulele (standard and bass, of course), they rocked AEOSK back in June. There's a slightly different line-up now, but the ethos of big, thumping, sing-a-long songs remains, and led by the talented Tamara, I can only see genuinely big things for them - they're the perfect festival band, so check them out this summer if you can.

The final guest of the evening was a certain Mr Tim Minchin, and I'm not saying H Anthony is guilty of nepotism to get him on the bill, but let's just say they're good friends and leave it at that. I jest of course, it was a real joy to have Minchin at the birthday bash - I've not seen him perform since the Ready For This? tour back in October, and the intimacy of this gig meant he could go off script. As such we got an uber-silly Easter song - prefaced with the threat that he would track down anyone who posted it on YouTube - the fabulous Good Book and Mitsubishi Colt backed by double bass and drums courtesy of 6 Day Riot. This beat poem may not be as celebrated as the ode to rationalism Storm, but it is just as tricksy, and one of my favourites (Tim Minchin songs, I mean, not beat poems. I can't claim to be an authority on them, really).

Top off the night with an everybody-on-stage version of the Junior Ministers anthem Bounce, and you've got something pretty wonderful. Perhaps the way forward from here is to go just a little bigger - Karaoke Circus's successful move from teeny Albany to the Bethnal Green Working Men's Club has proved that you can allow more people to share in the fun without losing any of the atmosphere that makes a night special.

Tim Minchin fan, by the way? Check out this video, hot off the presses:

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Bedroom Farce - Duke of York's Theatre

In Alan Ayckbourn's Bedroom Farce there are four couples but only three bedrooms. One of the play's greatest strengths is that all of the characters are instantly familiar, and the shorthand used between each respective husband and wife is very recognisable.

The set is divided into three separate rooms. The one on the far left - neat, traditional and overwhelmingly pink - belongs to Delia and Ernest; a couple in their 70s who have fallen into a comfy pattern of bickering, deciding Delia is right, and going to bed at a decent hour with the electric blanket on (with pilchards on toast this particular night, it being their anniversary.) They are true stiff upper-lip, keep calm and carry on types, but not at all unlikeable.

Next to them, stage-wise, are Malcolm and Kate, an utterly normal, well-grounded couple whose practical jokes and well, contentedness would be annoying, were it not for the fact that Kate is wonderfully big-hearted, and Malcolm clearly a good man despite his alpha male ego going into overdrive every now and again. And on the far right are Nick and Jan, who drive each other mad at the best of times, but especially now irritable workaholic Nick is laid up in bed with a bad back and Jan’s bedside manner leaves a lot to be desired.

The fourth couple, who wander from bedroom to bedroom leaving a trail of destruction for the others to clear up, are Trevor (wayward son of Ernest and Delia and Jan’s old flame) and Susannah; emotional wrecks who are on the verge of breaking up for good when we meet them at Kate and Malcolm’s party.

It has to be said that their discussions provide some uncomfortable moments for the audience – and perhaps an explanation as to why Hall decided to set the play when it was written, in the 1970s. Their discussions soon reveal that their relationship is violent – Trevor has thrown a chair and we actually witness Susannah hit him on the head with a substantial lampstand – and it appears that we are meant to be laughing during these exchanges. From a 21st century viewpoint, that is quite difficult to take.

Away from those awkward moments, however, there is much to laugh at, mainly thanks to a cast blessed with fine comic timing. Jenny Seagrove, for example, is perfectly cast as the strong matriarch Delia, and cleverly imbues her with just enough warmth as to ensure that she is not simply a twin-set caricature. In the centre, Finty Williams’s Kate is pure loveliness, and over on the right, comic actor Tony Gardner gets many of the biggest laughs thanks to his sublime delivery of lines which could go unnoticed in other hands. His straight-forward talk with Trevor also provides one of the play’s few deeper moments.

Some details of this play, then, have not aged at all well, but luckily the nature of relationships do not change so quickly. And while there are probably more profound nights to be had in the West End at the moment, this production’s talented cast means Bedroom Farce is certainly an enjoyable one.

Written for MusicOMH.com

Doctor Who: The Eleventh Hour

Normally, I take a quick look at Twitter after watching and enjoying an episode of Doctor Who, only to end up utterly deflated by a flood of "full of holes!" "RTD suckses!" and "boooooooooooooooooorings!"

Doesn't stop me though, and I did exactly the same last night, but this time... things were different. The tweets I saw were uniformly positive! Matt Smith? "Fun and adventurous!" Amy Pond? "Cool and the hottest since Romana!" Story? "Good, silly timey-wimey stuff!" Direction? "Genuinely interesting!" I mean, everyone disliked the theme tune (rightly, bloody awful), and I've read that the haters were out in force on the forums but let's face it, the first problem we should just get over, and the second isn't ever going to change - those people just don't like Doctor Who any more.

For the rest of us, there was such a lot to get excited about - Matt Smith in particular. David Tennant was such an ambassador for the show (and so overall ace) that he was always going to leave quite a void; so for Matt to make it so that we feel utterly comfortable with him in the role within one episode - minutes, in fact - was pretty darn impressive. Personality-wise, it's not nearly so big a leap as from grumpy Nine to bouncy Ten - Eleven is buzzing with ideas and talks ten-to-the-dozen much like DT's Doctor, but it's great to see he's such a geek. As Stuart says over on Behind The Sofa you can't imagine gangly, nutty professor-esque Eleven's got much of a "fightin' hand"... but then there is that gun...

And as for Amy Pond, well she's patently as screwy as he is, so they make quite the pair. Quite how their relationship will work, though, will be very interesting - she doesn't seem to be the sort to play Donna's 'reining in' role, that's for sure. In terms of Karen Gillan, she's instantly engaging and clearly has real comic skill; there wasn't much scope for deep emotion here, but her sense of wonder was clear.

The storyline wasn't overly interesting (and precisely the sort that the RTD-detractors would have rolled their eyes at had he written it), but I DID like the massive eye - obviously - and in any case, the sci-fi aspect of the first episode of a new Doctor or assistant's tenure is secondary to the introductions. Overall, I am certainly a very happy (Easter) bunny.

(Definitely catch Lisa's post, by the way!)